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Africa Takes Small Steps To Help `AIDS Orphans'

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UP a dirt path, past a banana field at the edge of this crowded capital city, is the small mud-walled home of seven orphans. Their father left the family years ago; their mother died in 1991. She had been diagnosed with AIDS.

The problem of ``AIDS orphans'' is acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where in recent years the disease has spread rapidly in a heterosexual population. More than half of all reported cases of AIDS - 8 million of 14 million worldwide - are in the region, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Meanwhile, Africa's traditional ``social safety net,'' the extended family, is already strained from a declining economy.

Outside agencies and governments are just beginning to address the growing needs of healthy but abandoned children, as well as the more complex needs of orphans diagnosed as having contracted the AIDS virus from their mothers.

``It's getting worse,'' says Beatrice Uzamureba, a social worker here in the Rwandan capital, referring to the increasing number of AIDS orphans and the growing inability of surviving family members to take them in.

``Families are collapsing ... onto the [surviving] grandparents or brothers,'' says Neill McKee, a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) official based in Nairobi, Kenya. In countries like Uganda, the problem ``is becoming a crisis,'' he adds.

Public-health experts from the United Nations, the United States, and Africa urge that families taking in AIDS orphans be given food, clothing, and money. Otherwise, the children may end up in overcrowded institutions or on the streets.

But the orphans living here by the banana field are being helped to stay together as a family. Caritas, an international Roman Catholic charity, pays the monthly rent, about $20, on their home and on several others.

Several of the older children have found casual jobs, and the money allows the younger ones to continue going to school.

``I'm doing a little business,'' Tereza, 20, says. She sells bananas and tomatoes at a local market. She is the second-oldest of the orphans, who range in age from 8 to 25 years old.

As Tereza talks, her brothers and sisters arrive and sit with her on one of the reed mats laid on the dirt floor. The tiny, two-room home has only two beds, so some of the children must sleep on the mats. The house, typical of many in Africa, has no electricity or running water.

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